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07.04.2014, 08:31

In Remembrance of Summerland

In August the Mayor of Douglas unveiled a memorial to victims of one of the worst peacetime fires in the history of the British Isles. In this article, Jimmy Chiu, Business Development Director with international glass and steel glazing company, Wrightstyle, considers the legacy of the Summerland tragedy..

An incident which started out as a minor fire at a seaside entertainment complex on the Isle of Man 40 years ago, has had far reaching implications for building regulations across the country and across the world.


The fire which broke out at the 3.5 acre Summerland resort on the Isle of Man - which advertised itself as the biggest and most innovative entertainment centre in the world (and was described as “outstanding” by the British Tourist Authority) spiralled out of control as a result of poor design and inappropriate building materials


Designed to attract visitors away from cheap overseas resorts, the centre had an indoor heated swimming pool, saunas, Turkish baths, an artificial sunshine zone, a children’s theatre, an underground disco, waterfalls, and restaurants and bars with live entertainment throughout the day.


One promotion extolled the centre as “a holiday town where it never rains, the wind never blows and the temperature never gets chilly. Outside it’s raining yet here you are relaxed in your shirt sleeves, gently perspiring in a tropical 80 degrees.”


Year-round artificial sunshine was achieved by a transparent roof comprising acrylic bronze-tinted sheets. There were seven floors in total and the building had a capacity for more than 5,000 people.


For just over two years the waterfront centre attracted visitors from all over the world. It appeared that the vision behind its creation was working - and taking Manx tourism into a bright future.


On the evening of Thursday 2nd August 1973 an estimated 3,000 people were enjoying themselves at the resort when three schoolboys who were sharing a cigarette outside of the public gaze in a building adjacent to a dismantled fiberglass kiosk, accidentally set off a fire that was to kill 50 people and gut the entire complex.


The small fire in the kiosk triggered a number of fire events. First, the kiosk collapsed against the exterior wall of the main leisure centre building (which contained both asbestos and bitumen which has little fire-resistance).


In turn, interior sound-proofing material in the building (which also had poor fire-resistance) caught alight; causing an explosion that ignited highly flammable acrylic sheeting which was covered the building’s exterior at the time.


The acrylic then melted, allowing oxygen in and contributing to more fires that blocked escape routes. 


Thereafter, fire continued to spread quickly across sheeting on the building’s walls and roof, and through vents that were not properly fireproofed - parts of the roof comprised of felt-covered “wood wool” slabs.


In addition, the building’s open-plan design included many internal spaces that simply acted as conduits (or “chimneys”) and spread fire further: with a subsequent inquiry finding absence of any compartmentation in the space above the entrance floor; in addition to inadequately protected escape stairways.


A thirty-minute delay in alerting the fire brigade made an already bad situation worse. Indeed, even when the alarm was raised, it was by the Captain of a ship two miles out at sea, who reported: “It looks as if the whole of the Isle of Man is on fire”. And it was therefore the Coastguard, rather than the resort’s operator, that called the fire service.


The first fire crews to arrive on the scene quickly established the severity of the incident. At one stage, 96 of the island’s 106 firefighters were attending to the fire from all 16 of the island’s fire engines.


Further compounding the tragedy, there was little or no attempt to evacuate the 3,000 people inside the centre. In a rush to escape, many were crushed and trampled because of locked exit doors. Many others then made their way to the main entrance, causing further crushing.


If that was not bad enough, emergency lighting failed after the main electrical supply was mistakenly turned off and the emergency power generator failed to start.


The main factors in the tragedy: inappropriate building materials, lack of compartmentation, and protected escape routes; were all to come under scrutiny during the public inquiry that followed.


Whilst no individuals or groups were blamed for the fire, changes to building regulations to improve fire safety were introduced across the British Isles. These have also been the foundation of building codes and regulations in many other countries.


Central to these changes were approaches to contain fire better and protect escape routes.


This year, on the 40th anniversary of the Summerland disaster, it is worth considering another tragedy: that it has sometimes taken significant loss of life to improve building and fire regulations. Further compounding the tragedy, there was little or no attempt to evacuate the 3,000 people inside the centre. In a rush to escape, many were crushed and trampled

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